Drawing: Best from the Least

To jaded Rome's courtiers, cardinals and contesse, young Benjamin West seemed the essence of Jean Jacques Rousseau's "natural man." The handsome innkeeper's son had come in 1760 from the wilds of Pennsylvania to study painting, and he charmed with tales of how he had learned to mix pigments from the Indians, how he had made brushes from the hair of the family cat. Shown the Apollo Belvedere, he exclaimed, to their delight: "My God, how like a Mohawk warrior!"

Alas, the style that West developed in Rome and later brought to England was anything but natural. He experimented with pompous...

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